Once upon a time there was a very rich emirate whose royal ruler wanted to dazzle the world with his magnanimity and appreciation of free speech. It was a bold move because, in this particular geographical desert enclave, the oil-rich kingdoms were typically ruled with an iron rod by absolute unelected monarchs. These tyrants, who lorded over their people with megalomaniacal majesty, were widely feared by the populace because they did not tolerate the slightest dissent to their hereditary despotism. At the drop of a royal whim, disobedient subjects could be flung into dungeons and tortured until death.
The fairytale appeared to become reality in the year 2006 when the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar set up the English-language news broadcaster, Al Jazeera. Qatar’s ruler Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, one of the richest men in the world owing to his tiny country’s immense natural gas wealth, put up the money to found the corporation… To go head-to-head with well-established global media giants was no mean feat, requiring a multi-billion-dollar investment. Pretty soon, however, Al Jazeera proved to be media heavyweight and appeared to offer news consumers a fresh perspective from the Western-centred corporations, especially when it came to Middle East affairs.
When Al Jazeera English entered the global scene, the American-led military occupation of Iraq was at full throttle with disturbing evidence of rampant NATO violations against civilians, such as the mass murder of families in Haditha by a platoon of US marines, and the full-scale onslaught on the city of Fallujah involving use of banned weapons like White Phosphorus. Al Jazeera provided critical coverage of these events in a manner that often outshone likes of the BBC, CNN, Reuters and Sky.
On events in the occupied territories of Palestine and Afghanistan, the Qatar-based network seemed to offer ground-breaking independent reportage. Al Jazeera was judged by many viewers, including Western audiences, to be more independent than the Western media outlets who were often considered “too soft” on Israeli violations and too deferential to foreign policy of their respective governments. In the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq, which was viewed as an illegal war based on criminal deception over spurious claims about 9/11 and non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the credibility of the major Western media corporations had slumped in the public eye. These outlets were seen as compromised, having uncritically indulged the fabrications and lies that emanated from Washington and London with regard to the Saddam Hussein regime and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera was not encumbered with this propaganda baggage and was therefore viewed as a more reliable source of international news.
There were, of course, skeptical voices about Al Jazeera even at its inception. How could a news broadcaster owned by an unelected absolute ruler be independent? After all, the Persian Gulf Arab oil sheikhdoms are a byword for repression and benighted medieval obscurantism, with Saudi Arabia’s House of Al Saud taking the laurels for that unenviable reputation. Qatar’s House of Al Thani was not far behind in the oppression stakes. Emir Hamad came to power in 1998 after he led a coup against his own father.
However, the Qatari ruler had a vision of promoting his kingdom as a global media hub. In some ways it was a radical initiative, setting the emirate apart from its Arab neighbours and bestowing global kudos on a mini-state of less than four million population. Al Jazeera English was central to realizing that vision. International celebrity journalists, such as Britain’s Sir David Frost, were recruited to give the corporation star appeal and household brand recognition. Qatar’s capital, Doha, became an international forum for high-profile media debates on weighty matters of the day. Glamorous news presenters, such as the BBC’s Zainab Badawi, were called up to host the Doha Debates on such issues as global poverty and ecological sustainability.
American and European prestigious universities, such as Cornell and the Paris Sorbonne, have been partnered with Qatari oil and gas money to boost the newfound international reputation of Qatar as an intelligence hub and seat of learning.
But cracks in Qatar’s carefully crafted façade began to appear with the advent of the Arab Spring. Qatar’s rulers, along with the House of Saud, have nailed their political colours to the American and Western mast in relation to the region’s momentous upheavals. Qatar has emerged as a strident Arab voice backing the Western geopolitical agenda of shoring up the conservative Muslim Brotherhood parties in Egypt and Tunisia that have served to blunt the revolutions on Western government terms. Whereas in Libya and Syria, Qatar has joined the Western fray in demanding regime change.
The increasingly interventionist role of Qatar in promoting the Western geopolitical agenda towards the Arab Spring has been accompanied by an increasingly overt propaganda role of Al Jazeera in covering these events. The broadcaster’s erstwhile reputation as an independent, critical news media outlet has rapidly dissipated to reveal an information service that is more propagandist than objective, serving the political ambitions of its royal owner, rather than functioning as a reliable journalistic source.
Al Jazeera has come under scrutiny for dumbing down on the popular uprising against the Western-backed Khalifa regime in neighbouring Bahrain, while at the same time giving saturated coverage to the Western-fomented insurgency in Syria. As with Western mainstream news media, Al Jazeera has given scant coverage to the brutal repression against civilians in Bahrain – where there is an undoubted genuine popular revolt – but, in contrast, the Western and Qatari/Saudi-backed covert, criminal campaign of subversion in Syria is distorted to appear as a noble struggle for democracy against the government of Bashar Al Assad. On more than one occasion, the Doha-based broadcaster has been caught red-handed peddling disinformation about the Damascus government with unfounded allegations of human rights abuses, while covering up rampant atrocities committed by the Western-backed and Qatari-armed so-called Free Syrian Army.
The Arab Spring has shot through the putative reputation of Al Jazeera as an independent news outlet. Several of its journalists and bureau chiefs have resigned in disgust at the nakedly political agenda of Al Jazeera, where the organization has come to be seen as a propaganda tool serving the geopolitical interests and ambitions of its owner, the Qatari monarch.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for the emirate’s pretensions of supporting independent journalism and free speech was delivered last week with the fate of a young Qatari poet. University student Mohammed Al Ajami was sentenced to life in prison by a secret court in Doha for the “crime” of writing a poem that was deemed to be critical of the emir.
Ajami’s poem, entitled Tunisian Jasmine, was inspired by the popular uprisings that sparked off in Tunisia at the end of 2010 with the self-immolation of a young street vendor. The student poet lamented how the people of the region “were all Tunisians now” and he deprecated the region’s autocratic rulers who were deaf to the cries of freedom and democratic rights among the masses. He was first detained by the Qatari rulers in November 2011 after his poem was posted on the internet and he was kept in solitary confinement for 12 months before being sentenced to life imprisonment last week. Ajami’s lawyer told media how he was not allowed to represent his client in court and that the young poet was not even given the chance to defend himself from the charges laid against him in secret by an Al Thani appointed judge.
Rights group Amnesty International said of the verdict: “It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right.”
This was the barbaric fate of a Qatari youth who mildly spoke his mind and expressed a heartfelt desire for human freedom and dignity. The barbarity was perpetrated by a megalomaniac ruler who professes concern for human rights and democratic freedom in Gaza and Syria; the same ruler who owns Al Jazeera English – the self-styled independent global news broadcaster. This fairytale just ended in cruel tears with poetic justice of a very barbarous kind.